Angola: Tempered in the inferno of history

Angola's capital Luanda has been developing, just like the nation itself, into one of the most intriguing places in Africa.


The skyline around the magnificent Luanda Bay in Angola’s capital city is changing so rapidly that some photographers complain that their pictures of the city are out of date by the time they can get them to their customers. Yet, amid the confusion of scaffolding surrounding dozens of huge building projects and a forest of glittering new steel, concrete and glass towers, you can catch glimpse of staid, old-fashioned but graceful buildings that clearly belong to a bygone age.

The National Bank building, for example, is an exquisite, 150-year old survivor from the colonial period when the Portuguese transplanted some of their finest architectural concepts in Angola. The country’s new Parliament building, a splendid structure with a glorious, rose-coloured dome, also pays due respect to the country’s history and its legacy.

Even as Angola is reconstructing a new country on the war-battered foundations of its old self and as the sharply modern relentlessly drives out the obsolete past, you realise that the country is dripping with history. In addition to numerous well appointed museums, such as the Slavery Museum, which pulls no punches in depicting the horrors of this inhuman trade and which serves as both a real and symbolic reminder of just how far, and with how much pain, suffering, determination and courage the people of Angola have come, there is the needle-sharp memorial to Agostinho Neto.

Rising like a rocket cast in marble, the memorial dominates a vast ceremonial square and park in the heart of Luanda. It was inaugurated on 17th September 2012 to coincide with Neto’s birthday, which is on the same date in 1922.

Angola memorial

It is brimming with photographs, documents and objects relating to Neto and the gigantic struggles he led the country through. Enormous paintings replete with startlingly vivid details recreate some of the most decisive battles involving the Angolan forces.

Still holding its own on a hill overlooking the Luanda Bay is the Fortaleza de São Miguel or Saint Michael Fortress, which was built in 1576 by Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novais, who also established the city of São Paulo da Assunção de Luanda. This fortress, which at one time was a self-contained town within its thick walls, protected by an array of cannon, was a major outlet for the nefarious Atlantic slave trade that captured and transported hundreds of thousands of Angolans to Portuguese colonies in São Tomé and thence to Brazil. It also became the administrative capital of the Portuguese colonial administration.

Today, the fortress, which has been restored to its pristine condition, houses the Museum of the Armed Forces. The museum tells the dramatic story of Angola’s war of independence, the civil war and finally, the end of war and the onset of peace relief mounted on the gateway to the museum tells the dramatic story of Angola’s war of independence, the civil war and finally, the end of war and the onset of peace.

All the major historic figures, António Agostinho Neto, the country’s first President, José Eduardo dos Santos, the current President, Jonas Savimbi, the defeated leader of UNITA, and other actors are rendered with remarkable dramatic effect.

Inside the courtyard are startling statues of ancient Portuguese figures, Paulo Dias de Novais, Diogo Cão, reputed to be the first European to set foot on Angola, Vasco da Gama, who rounded the Cape of Storms (Cape of Good Hope) and discovered the sea route to India, Portuguese poet Luís de Camões and sundry other notables. At one time, these notables were proudly mounted on plinths in prominent positions within the town.

Now they look out of place, like jetsam washed ashore from a shipwreck. Imposing tribute But there is also an imposing tribute to a great 17th century Angolan ruler, Queen Ana Nzinga, renowned for her intelligence and wit, who made an alliance with the Dutch to fight the Portuguese and twice routed strong Portuguese armies in 1644 and 1647.

She personally continued to lead resistance to the Portuguese well into her sixties but also shrewdly made alliances for her people when this course of action seemed to make most sense. Above all, she is remembered for refusing to take a subordinate status when negotiating with the Portuguese and insisting on being treated as an equal.


Her legacy of independence of spirit permeates society to this day and it is said that many women insist on getting married beneath her statue as a sign of their own freedom and independence. The courtyard also contains a selection of real weapons used during the wars – Russian-built aeroplanes, tanks, Apartheid-era South African Defence Force armoured cars, machine guns and other deadly instruments of death.

Inside, however, you seem to step into a time capsule. There is a large chamber whose walls are completely covered by blue-painted ceramic tiles, known as azulejos, which tell, in graphic detail, the early history of the Portuguese advance into Angola. We visited the museum on a Sunday but there were two parties

of school children with their teachers and guides. Some of the issues raised by the exhibits would have sounded very strange to these children, most of whom were born after the war but it was fascinating to see the vivid interest with which they learnt about their history.

But the children are not alone. A clear grasp of their history is considered essential by the citizens of this country which has indeed been squeezed through the mangle of time, including perhaps the ugliest example of proxy war in modern times.

It is easy to forget, as you wander around modern Luanda, for example, that the civil war, which lasted for almost three decades, only finally came to an end in 2002.

All the county’s much-admired development, including an economic growth rate that averaged 11.1% between 2000 and 2010 (GDP growth averaged 20% between 2005 and 2007), a world record in achieving the fastest decline in poverty rates, perhaps the biggest public housing scheme in Africa and massive investment into infrastructure, have all been achieved since 2002 – an extraordinary performance by any measure.

Luanda cityscape

By embracing and displaying its history, Angola lays out a continuing tableau, an uninterrupted narrative of its painful, but also often glorious, evolution over the centuries. The country is still busy writing its own history but this time, the instruments being used are cement, stone, steel, glass and an unfettered determination to build the most magnificent cities on the African continent.

The country is still busy writing its own history but this time, the instruments being used are cement, stone, steel, glass and an unfettered determination to build the most magnificent cities on the African continent.

History of Angola in brief

Angola is a vast country – twice the size of France – and stretches, west to east from the Atlantic coast, to Zambia; and north to south from DR Congo to Namibia. Thus it lies at the very heart of Africa and was the epicentre of the great Bantu kingdoms of central Africa.

Of these, perhaps the greatest were the Kingdom of the Kongo, which dominated northwest Angola and spilled over into DR Congo, the Republic of the Congo and southern Gabon; and the Mbunda Kingdom in southeast Angola, which endured until the late 19th century.

These were sophisticated, well organised kingdoms with busy trading links that extended to the Great Mutapa Empire in Zimbabwe. They were skilled metal, wood and bone and ceramics workers producing a variety of practical objects including fearsome weapons.

Their artistic skills as carvers reverberates to this day – the great Spanish artist Picasso said it was seeing the stylised carvings from this region that opened his eyes to Cubism. Some objects from the wider area recently fetched millions of dollars at art auctions in London and New York.

The Portuguese era

In the 15th century, the Portuguese, looking for a sea route to the spice lands of India around the continent of Africa made landfall at several points along the Atlantic coast. Initially, they tended to establish small trading posts but later fortified them and used them as bases to push their explorations both around the continent and also into the interior.

The Portuguese explorer Paulo Dias de Novais founded São Paulo de Loanda (Luanda) in 1575. He came with 400 soldiers and a hundred families of settlers. A few years later, in 1587, the Portuguese established another fort at Benguela, which became a town in 1617.

By this time, the Portuguese were busily engaged in the slave trade, mainly for their plantations in Brazil. This trade would last until the first half of the 19th century. They also found lucrative commerce in raw materials, elephant tusks, rhino horn and dried fish.

The Portuguese extended their grip on the coastal strip through a series of treaties and wars through the 16th century. But their dominance was being challenged by other European powers and for a brief while (1641 to 1648), they were ousted by the Dutch who occupied Luanda. The Dutch had found allies in the local people such as Queen Anna Nzinga mentioned earlier.

Fortress of São Miguel

However, the Portuguese showed little inclination to expand inland in Angola until after the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and Berlin Conference of 1885. Several military expeditions were organised to go into the interior to ‘establish presence’ as demanded by the Berlin Conference but even until 1906, only some 6% of the country was under effective Portuguese control.

It was not until the after the resistance posed by the Mbunda king, Mwene Mbandu I Lyondthzi Kapova, was overcome that in 1951 the Portuguese government designated the colony as an overseas province of Portugal, called the Overseas Province of Angola. Fight for Independence The ‘Winds of Change’ initiated by the end of World War II triggered off spirited campaigns for independence from colonialism not only in Africa but around the world.

In Angola, the independence movement was led by three movements: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto; the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) led by Holden Roberto and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi.

Agostinho Neto, son of a Methodist pastor, studied medicine in Portugal and became involved in the liberation struggle from an early age. He was arrested by the Portuguese authorities, exiled, placed under house arrest, escaped to Morocco and Zaire; was turned down by the Kennedy Administration when he asked for US support but established a lifelong relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and met Che Guevara in 1965.

Independence The ‘Carnation Revolution’ of 1974 was a military coup that overthrew the regime of Portuguese leader Estado Novo, successor to the dictator António Salazar.

This paved the way for the total independence of Angola with Neto as the country’s first leader. Civil War However, within months of gaining independence, conflict among the three major political parties broke out, aided and abetted by outside powers pursuing their own economic and ideological aims.

Angola became enmeshed in the Cold War with the US, Zaire and apartheid South Africa supporting the FNLA and UNITA and the Soviet Union and Cuba supporting the MPLA. This developed into one of the most vicious wars in the history of the continent with millions of mines scattered about in the rural countryside.

This led to a virtual depopulation of the countryside as people sought refuge in the cities, thus creating one of the biggest slums in Africa in Luanda. To make matters worse, an estimated 300,000 to half a million Portuguese who ran most of the economic institutions and businesses, left to take up new lives in South Africa, Europe and the US.

They left a massive administrative black hole and even sabotaged power stations, farms and other vital utilities, plunging Angola almost into bankruptcy. (Interestingly, it is now estimated that up to 200,000 Portuguese are now living in Angola and that, in an effort to escape the declining economy of Portugal, more are seeking opportunities in the rapidly growing African state).

Neto died in 1979 and was succeeded by José Eduardo dos Santos, the current President, who maintained the MPLA’s socialist orientation but has gradually allowed market forces to play a part in the economic growth of Angola. The war between MPLA and Unita continued to rage on but with the collapse of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, Unita lost its main backer and in 2002, Savimbi was killed by government troops and Unita signed a ceasefire soon after.

This brought the protracted war finally to an end. Angola now has the peace in which to rebuild its shattered economy, infrastructure and social systems. It is certainly making up for lost time considering the astonishing pace and scale of its reconstruction.

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